A Seat at the Table

Could one famous pastor use his power for change?

This past week’s discourse between ex-evangelicals and Presbyterian pastor & author Tim Keller has left me raw, emotional and resolute. It’s a mixed bag of emotions really. Memories from my past, conversations with pastors or bits of sermons have been floating through my brain as I process all that’s been discussed.

The other day as I watched a lengthy back and forth between exvangelical & freelance journalist Chrissy Stroop and Keller, I tapped on one of Keller’s replies that sort of punched me in the gut and began to respond with a question that turned into a thread. As I typed furiously hot tears formed just below the surface and my heart was pounding. I felt desperately sad and determined all at once. In the middle of trying to find the words to convey what was burning inside me the app glitched, and all I could do was save it, not tweet it. Tired, frustrated and emotionally drained I saved it to drafts and threw my phone across the couch. But the interruption gave me time to mull over exactly what it was that had me so worked up. Turns out it was a lot.

Below is Keller’s reply, which was in regard to his own definition of sexual ethic, which Chrissy was trying to explain has been harmful to many, many people over the course of as many years.

It reads: “With all my heart and my experience, I have not found it to be harmful at all. So where does that leave us?”

The key part of this phrase that struck me was “my heart” and “my experience” followed by “I have not found it to be harmful at all.” This has been possibly one of the most telling things Keller has said over the course of the last two weeks, in regard to how he’s viewing the information we are providing. For someone who leads a congregation in one of the largest cities in the world, its baffling that all that matters in this conversation is what he has seen and heard personally. How obtuse, to completely overlook the experiences of anyone who doesn’t look and think exactly like he does.

He’s showing us here that all that matters to him are his own experiences, which are through a lens of [straight] male whiteness and therefor great privilege. Which is strange considering he’s supposedly defending a Christian ethic in this conversation. Christianity, or how it takes form the U.S., is usually defined by anyone who believes in and attempts to emulate the life and teachings of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. As I recall, Jesus (who was not white) was pretty famous for noticing, and reaching out to the misunderstood, the outcast. But as I scour these tweets and replies over the last couple weeks, I don’t really see Jesus I remember anywhere in Keller’s arguments.

[image description: Aslan (The lion from the Chronicles of Narnia with the lines “Do not cite the deep magic to me. I was there when it was written.)

This is a thing we run into in these circles, when white evangelicals are trying to defend their words and actions against criticism from those who’ve left the church and talk about their trauma and abuse openly. They accuse us of not understanding scripture or of never having been true believers at all and that’s our “real problem.” But that’s not it at all. Once again, they miss the point. It’s quite the opposite actually. Ask anyone who spent a good portion of their life as a Christian before leaving and they’ll tell you. We weren’t the “pew warmers,” as pastors like to call people who just show up on Sundays to be entertained and go home. And we weren’t “Christmas & Easter Christians” who only showed up on holidays. Ask any one of us and you’ll be hearing from former pastors, former pastor’s wives, ex-missionaries, former youth pastors, worship leaders, volunteer coordinators, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, children’s pastors. A lot of them hold advanced degrees in biblical studies, theology and pastoral care. These are the people who evangelicals accuse of never having been true believers and not understanding scripture! These still-Christians defending the church think they can make absurd arguments that totally contradict Jesus’ teachings and expect us to believe them. As if we don’t know what Jesus really said and did, at least according to the apostles. But we do know.

Which brings me back to Keller’s reply tweet. He’s relying only on his own experience as a white male pastor within the evangelical system, as it were, to tell him how other people are affected by the doctrine he preaches and writes about. That makes no sense, unless he’s only preaching to himself every Sunday. Humanity is so big and so diverse, there is no way that the gospel is going to be interpreted and digested identically among all people everywhere. And yet that is exactly what evangelicalism expects. It expects their narrow worldview and strict teachings on sexuality and relationships and marriage and conflict and behavior, to be imprinted on anyone who hears it and accepted at face value. Keep in mind that the written text evangelicals are using for their “guidebook” aka the bible, was written 2,000 years ago. And that’s just the New Testament, I’m not even bringing the Old Testament into this.

Progressive Christian author, the late Rachel Held Evans, had this to say about American evangelicals and how they use the bible in her 2018 book Inspired: “In many ways the Bible of my youth was set up to fail. While American evangelicalism instilled in me a healthy love and respect for scripture—many of its institutions taught me to expect something from the Bible that the Bible was never intended to deliver—namely, an internally consistent and self-evident worldview that provides clear, universal answers to all life’s questions—”[1] (emphasis my own). Even someone like Rachel, who remained a believer while wrestling with scripture to the very end, understood that the confines of evangelicalism in America could not possibly provide all that humanity needed from this book they claim is so “clear” on so many subjects.

When I was a little kid, we attended a church down the street from our house. It was the 80’s and the sanctuary was all done in earth tones- dark brown carpet and dark wood pews with burnt-orange seat cushions. At the front of the sanctuary, centered on the beige wall above the baptistry, was a phrase painted in large brown calligraphy. It read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” That may be true. But humanity did not stay the same. We have evolved from tribes of hunters and gatherers, into civilized societies. We’ve invented whole new ways to torment and punish human beings since the days of Pontius Pilate. We also, through science and technology, have far more advanced knowledge of the human body, our planet and the cosmos. And if we know all this to be true, why then is it so hard to believe that maybe our ideas about who god is- and even our ideas of who Jesus was- can’t evolve also?

You see this isn’t just about sexual ethic, or the other vague arguments Keller has made in recent days. It’s about real people who’ve experienced real trauma at the hands of “clear biblical teaching” and doctrine. It’s about kids who’ve died from suicide because someone told them god doesn’t want them to exist as a queer human, let alone a queer Christian. It’s about women who’ve stayed in abusive marriages because no one told them a marriage license isn’t a license to rape. It’s about little girls and boys who are told their “heart is deceitful above all else”[2] so they spend a lifetime trying to learn to trust their own human instincts. It’s about people who trusted their pastors to lead them well, but instead led them into science denial, prosperity gospel and getting a bankrupt, corrupt, former reality tv star accused of sexual assault elected as the President of these United States. And these are just personal consequences, my word count is too high to get into the ramifications for our democracy, or the complicity with white supremacy or colonization.   

So this is my question for Pastor Keller: In light of all this- in light of all the real, living, here and now human lives at stake; what are you afraid of? Don’t tell me it’s for people’s salvation because if you can’t look at the least of these here on earth and love them well, eternity doesn’t matter. “–your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.” Will you leave a legacy of fear of “the other”? Or will you sacrifice your fame and your notoriety and the approval of John Piper and all the others to truly do as Jesus asked of you?

[1] Evans, R.H. (2018) Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Ch.4 Wisdom Stories. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, and imprint of Thomas Nelson.

[2] Jeremiah 17:9, NIV

2 thoughts on “A Seat at the Table

  1. This is so true of my experience as well. I tried. I tried so hard. I have diaries full of my cries to God to help me, show me the way, show me his will, cleanse me, use me for his glory. I wrote it in the most private pages because I really, truly believed and wanted to be right with God. So anyone accusing ex-vangelicals of being “pew warmers” has obviously not been listening to what we are saying. I sometimes think BECAUSE I studied and prayed so much was the reason I left- I saw (after many years) how it just didn’t add up, and how much it made me hate myself.

    Thank you for this blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I’ve been there. The hating myself part too, for a long time. I’m sorry you experienced this also, but I’m glad you’re finding validation and I hope, healing. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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